Sixty years ago.
Oct. 22, 1962. I was ordained to ministry in the Presbyterian Church.
Oct. 22, 1962. President Kennedy addressed the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
My parents thought no one would come to the ordination service at their Millburn, N.J., church because of the crisis. But the people came, and the service proceeded.
Having taken an elective course on Jeremiah at Princeton Theological Seminary, I chose words from Jeremiah for the ordination sermon. “See, I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah 1:10.
Having selected that text before the ordination service, the words seemed especially telling that night, Oct. 22. Not that I thought I would be a prophet over nations, but to adopt that prophetic witness in my ministry.
As a graduating senior at the seminary that spring, I had listened to lectures by the theologian Karl Barth at the Princeton University Chapel. He also met with members of my graduating class in informal conversation. Where he had thundered with a strong Swiss-German accent in the University Chapel, he spoke pastorally, conversationally with us students. In answer to a question from one of us, “What would you advise us as we are about to enter ministry?” he replied (I summarize), “Engage your people with Scripture.”
That became a watchword for me, and still holds as I preach now at the Springs Presbyterian Church.
My formative years emerged from a liberal Protestant background in which religion seemed as natural as breathing. My parents taught in Sunday school and were elected elders in the church. We went to church without question. It never occurred to me I had a choice not to. Beginning in 1962, I was ordained, then my brother Laird, then my brother Bruce. My dad’s business friends were perplexed. How is it your three sons are ministers, and none in business? My dad smiled, as though to suggest it’s a mystery. Of the Spirit.
My learning curve was steep from my beginnings. In Webster Groves, Mo., in the late 1940s into the ’50s, I went to a high school where there were no Jews, also no Black people. They had separate schools; Topeka v. Brown was not until 1954. I graduated in 1952. As an older Jewish woman said to me in recent years about my origins, “WASP heaven.” True.
My ministry in three successive churches proceeded through the decades of civil rights (then, abruptly, Black Power), women’s rights (my wife was influenced by that), gay rights (after our divorce), and AIDS ministry, until my retirement from the Amagansett Presbyterian Church in 1998. Prophetic in the tradition of the Prophets, pastoral in words of the Gospel.
Then, Cuba. Beginning in 2005 I have been part of a mission partnership between the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Cuba. With a group from our South Fork churches, I have each year gone to a church in Guines, southeast of Havana. It has felt to me like a circling back to my initial ordination on the night of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Over the decades my theology has evolved. I was especially taken by Karl Barth’s evangelical theology. It hardly needs to be said that the word “evangelical” today has been usurped. I was also startled to hear one of my instructors say offhand, “All theology is autobiographical.” Upon reflection, I would say that is true. Theology is examined in thought, but it is forged in experience.
There is Jeremiah to chew on. Jesus. Karl Barth. Classes I have attended, several by Walter Wink in the 1980s. My theology remains grounded in Scripture, the whole of it worked into the mess of our lives.
While various words or titles were attached to Jesus in the biblical narrative, the only appellation he used in apparent self-reference was Son of Man. It comes from his Jewish tradition, Ezekiel, for example. I believe there is more that is continuous between Judaism and Christianity than discontinuous. (I won’t here tackle the third Abrahamic faith, Islam, not to turn this into a mini-treatise.)
That Christianity became disconnected from Judaism historically is obvious, to which we witness the early creeds, the excesses of Crusades and conquests, religious wars from the Protestant Reformation, slavery across the board, pogroms, down to the counterconstitutional claim that we are a Christian nation. It’s why, understandably, many people give up on religion. For that matter, there’s plenty of blood, intrigue, corruption, and mayhem in the histories of Scripture.
For shorthand, we call all that sin. Thus the need for atonement and redemption. All of Scripture addresses that. It is a continuous theme, the Creator in argument with us and not giving up. Therefore we do not give up. We continue the prophetic traditions. We continue to invoke the words of Jesus. We work out our theologies and from them the ethics and the morality.
There is also the mystical. What is unexpected, what can’t be explained. We witness the ineffable. It has propelled me forward. No need to reason it away, it’s there.
The Rev. Robert Stuart lives in Springs.